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Telling a Complex Immigration Story in Video and Stills

October 27, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

In June, The Sacramento Bee published “No Safe Place,” a multimedia package that tells the sometimes harrowing experiences of Afghans in Sacramento who were granted Special Immigration Visas (SIV). Their work for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan had made them targets for the Taliban insurgency, but once they arrived in Sacramento they found themselves coping with poverty, crime and discrimination.

“No Safe Place” includes a 20-page special section with images by staff photographer Renée C. Byer and articles by writer Stephen Magagnini, as well as an 11-and-a-half minute video that was shot by Jessica Koscielniak of the McClatchy Video Lab. While Byer’s photos of the SIV immigrants are intimate and probing, Koscielniak’s video offers more context about the lives of three of Byer’s subjects, and their journey from conflict zone to a low-rent housing complex in a crime-ridden neighborhood. It also portrays the failures of the State Department and resettlement agencies to care for people who sacrificed their homes and safety to serve the U.S. military in Afghanistan. “The photos told their very specific stories,” Koscielniak says, “but the video gave you a sense of the overall dimension of what their life experiences were once they got to this country.”

© McClatchy Video Lab

Jessica Koscielniak shot video of Faisal Razmal, a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan now working as a security guard. © McClatchy Video Lab

Many of the 2,000 Afghanis in the Sacramento area were placed by resettlement agencies in Skyview Villa, an apartment building that its Afghani residents call “the compound.” Byer began spending time at Skyview in July 2015, after she met Malalai Rafi. Rafi’s husband had been an electrical engineer who had worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Weeks after he, Malalai and their four children arrived in Sacramento, he was hit by a car and killed while biking with his eight-year-old son, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in the accident. Rafi, who came of age under Taliban rule and had been forbidden to attend school, speaks no English and has no driver’s license. Byer photographed the husband’s funeral, then spent days talking to Rafi through a translator to earn the shy woman’s trust.

After photographing Rafi at her son’s bedside and at home, Byer thought she might pursue a story about Afghan women in the U.S. Then Faisal Razmal, another resident of Skyview, was shot in the eye during an attempted robbery. Razmal, a mechanic who spoke three languages, had served as a translator for the U.S. Army, but like many SIV recipients, found his skills were of no use in the Sacramento job market. He was working as a night security guard in the neighborhood and struggled to support his family. As Byer spent more time at Skyview, more residents told her of their problems. “I realized this is a bigger project,” says Byer. “They survived the Taliban and they’re enduring poverty and violence here.”

After six months shooting for the project and working with writer Stephen Magagnini, Byer felt that incorporating video could provide valuable context about the lack of support the State Department gives to its special visa recipients. Video could also provide a way for the Afghanis to tell their own stories. “It’s one thing to read a story but it’s another thing to hear in their words how they’re feeling. It adds another level of humanity.” However, Byer notes, “This was a really complex story, and needed someone to pull it all together.”

In January, Koscielniak, one of three video journalists who work at the McClatchy Video Lab in Washington, DC, introduced herself to Byer and said she hoped they could one day work together. The Video Lab offers all McClatchy-owned newspapers, including the Bee, assistance with video production and editing, and also produces its own video content for use by any of its papers. “She’s a phenomenal photojournalist,” Koscielniak says of Byer, “and I was looking for new projects and people to collaborate with.”

Over a meal, Byer told Koscielniak about the stories she and Magagnini had gathered at Skyview Villa. After the meeting, Byer recommended to her editors that they reach out to McClatchy Video Lab’s team to help produce a video. They agreed, and this spring Koscielniak spent two weeks in Sacramento, gathering 40 hours of interviews, as well as footage of the Skyview neighborhood and scenes from the lives of Byer’s subjects.

When Koscielniak arrived in Sacramento, Byer spent hours briefing her and showing her photographs. Next, with Byer making introductions, Koscielniak conducted interviews with all of Byer’s subjects. “From there I spent time with a handful of them who were open to having me spend time and observe their lives unfold.” Three people feature prominently in the video: Rafi, Razmal, and Dr. Fahim Pirzada, a former protocol officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, who now works as a medical translator and runs Veterans, Immigrants and Refugee Trauma Institute, a nonprofit in Sacramento. Pirzada’s help in disputes with landlords and resettlement agencies has made him “a guardian angel in the community” Koscielniak says. “I thought he’d be the overarching voice that would help you understand the subjects.”

Koscielniak did each of her interviews with two Canon 5D Mark IIIs set on tripods next to each other, using wireless mics and recording to a Sound Devices MixPre-D. She doesn’t wear headphones to monitor audio while conducting interviews because “I find them to be disengaging,” she says. She starts talking to her subjects while setting up her equipment. “So, by the time I have mic’d them up and hit the record button, we’re past the getting to know you phase, and are ready to share some life challenges.” When she has to ask uncomfortable questions, she saves them for the end of the interview. When interviewing Rafi, for example, “I knew it would be uncomfortable to talk about life without her husband, and I knew that at any time she could just shut the interview down, so I waited until the end.” Rafi talked about her anxieties after her government benefits were cut and her food stamps had run out.

Byer came along on each interview, but took few photos. She had worked alongside videographers before and knew how easily videographers and photographers could get in each other’s shots. With Koscielniak, she says, “I was cognizant of getting out of her way and making sure she was able to get what she could get.” Byer notes that over the months she had been working on the project, she had captured many similarly emotional moments, “and I wanted the video to be on the same level.” The day they interviewed Razmal, his wife lost patience with him and with the bedbug-infested apartment they live in with their two small children. While Koscielniak filmed the whole scene, Byer shot only two frames of Razmal’s wife sitting on the floor in despair. On camera, Razmal says, “I just don’t know what to do.”

© McClatchy Video Lab

A still from the video Koscielniak made for the Sacramento Bee’s report “No Safe Place,” about people who were granted Special Immigration Visas, but have received little assistance since arriving in the U.S. © McClatchy Video Lab

Koscielniak thought it was essential to capture a sense of the neighborhood. She shot b-roll while driving and walking around the compound. To capture sweeping aerial views of the area, she used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro drone equipped with a Zenmuse X5 camera.

Before she left Sacramento, she observed an editing session as Byer and her Bee editors began sifting through all her photos. Byer notes, “Jessica sat in the room to really get an idea of the stories we were telling, so that when she went back to DC to do the editing, she’d have an understanding of how the stories were coming together.”

Koscielniak had 40 hours of footage to cut. She worked closely with Jason Shoultz, a regional editor for McClatchy, and when they needed a fresh perspective, they would call on Jonathan Forsythe, McClatchy’s national video editor. They also showed their cuts to The Sacramento Bee’s visuals director, Sue Morrow, and senior editor Mary Lynne Vellinga. Shoultz “kept saying: We need more, we need more context,” Koscielniak recalls. She looked through Embassy photos and stock footage, and chose to license video from Getty that showed translators working with U.S. soldiers on combat missions; this footage opens the video.

“I needed an expert who could talk about the situation and none of the resettlement agencies or the State Department would talk in detail,” Koscielniak notes. So she turned to Matt Zeller, a veteran whose life was saved by a translator in Afghanistan. Zeller founded the non-profit No One Left Behind, which helps Afghan and Iraqi combat translators settle in the U.S. His interview with Koscielniak adds a note of outrage over the government’s meager help for foreign nationals who have served the U.S.

Koscielniak chose to incorporate some of Byer’s still images to help move the narrative along. She notes, “They had some of the best storytelling moments, and I couldn’t ignore them.”

“The editor and publisher embraced this project,” Byer notes. In June, when the report “No Safe Place” was published and the video was posted, the editorial board published an op-ed calling for more support for special visa holders, and organized a public forum. Byer says the paper will continue to call attention to the issue. So far, little has changed. The video ends with text that spells out a dismal situation: Razmal’s request for disability has been denied. Rafi’s brother tried to join her in Sacramento, but his visa application was rejected. The State Department now advises new SIV recipients not to move to Sacramento, and to choose less expensive cities instead.

“Believe me, I searched for a happy ending,” Koscielniak says. “There wasn’t one.”

Related Links:

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Combining still and video productions: Danielle Levitt for I-D Magazine

Innovations in Visual Storytelling; Moving Beyond the Linear Narrative